America is not just in the middle of a national election during a worldwide pandemic; we are in the midst of a political realignment. We are transitioning to a new party system, the seventh in our nation’s history. Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential nomination victory gives us a sense of how that system could look.
I spent 37 years on the political battlefield, both as an elected official and as a Republican state party chairman. For the past several years I have taught graduate-level public affairs classes at the University of Washington and Seattle University. Of all the things happening now in our politics, what is most interesting to me is that we are watching the creation of a new American party system in real time.
Back in September of last year, I wrote about the evolution of our party system. I felt that the election of 2016 started (or perhaps accelerated) the movement away from our present party system. It was clear that Republican elites had lost touch with the Republican base and lost control over their party. Republican base voters, I thought, supported Trump because they agreed with him. Like him, they were instinctively protectionist and isolationist. Their nativist passion to restrict immigration had become the driving force of a new conservative movement.
At the same time, it was also obvious to me that the Republican Party had lost college-educated voters (especially women) and with them the suburbs they used to win. The party now was made up primarily of white, evangelical Protestants—a huge voting bloc—and non-college-educated whites. Those in control of the GOP had become content to double down on this coalition rather than try to win back moderate suburbanites.
The Democratic Party also was nearly transformed in 2016, but Clinton/Obama elites held off the rise of Bernie Sanders and democratic socialism. That battle continued deep into the Democratic primaries of this election cycle, however. Last fall I predicted that either the Democrats would remain a center-left party dedicated to perfecting New Deal structures or the party would become much more progressive, much closer to the European social democratic movements that the American left has long wanted to bring here.
“We are now in the seventh party system,” I wrote. “The question is, what will that system ultimately look like?” At the time, it seemed probable that the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party would emerge dominant. The Tea Party wing of the Republicans had wiped out the GOP establishment. Now it seemed that the mirror image for the Democrats would also occur.
But it turned out that actual voters had other ideas. Beginning in South Carolina—before COVID-19 transformed the election and everything else happening in the world—Biden put together a winning coalition made up of African American voters, boomer Democrats, and suburban moderates, including disaffected Republicans. This coalition could be the basis for the new American party system.
In the party system that’s now becoming extinct, Republican presidents from Nixon to Trump pried the South and many working-class white voters away from the Democrats while retaining their traditional base of college-educated whites. This erased the dominance Democrats enjoyed from the Depression through Vietnam and created a 50-50 nation, divided government, and gridlock. But now moderate suburbanites seem to be switching sides, leaving Republicans with just white evangelicals and rural voters.
If Biden holds his primary coalition together and wins, the Democratic Party has the opportunity to become a big, broad, center-left, one-nation party that can win often enough (and with big enough majorities) to break the gridlock and actually govern. Polls now suggest that just that kind of a Biden blue wave is building.
There are a lot of very smart people — chief among them Rachel Bitecofer of the Niskanen Center — who have argued that the results of this election are already baked in and that an anti-Trump Democratic landslide is inevitable. Bill Clinton’s pollster Stan Greenberg also made a strong case that a Democratic triumph on a historic scale is coming this fall.
Polling shows that moderates — white women, white college graduates, independents, suburbanites — turned hard against Trump and his party shortly after the inauguration and are not coming back. Bitecofer argues this was the result of negative partisanship driving up Democratic turnout; I believe it was caused by Trump alienating people who reluctantly supported him in 2016. Regardless, the data are clear. In 2016, Trump won among white women, white college graduates, and independents. In the 2018 election, those groups all moved decisively toward the Democrats.
As a result, 2020 could be a realigning election like 1860, 1896, and 1932: an election that ushers in a new era of one-party dominance.
Of course, that assumes that the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is willing to be part of such a coalition. At this moment the Democratic civil war is still continuing, with primary challenges erupting across the country. In the March 17 Illinois third district Democratic primary, the Sanders/AOC wing of the party defeated another veteran moderate.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez candidly and accurately observed recently that “in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.” The democratic socialists have created their own infrastructure within the Democratic Party. Will they at some point give up on transforming the D’s and instead launch a new socialist party?
And this prediction also assumes Biden defeats Trump. If instead Trump defeats the moderate presidential candidate who everyone assumed was the most electable, then what happens to the Democratic Party?
Still, Biden’s victory over Sanders provides hope that the center can hold. This year, at least, we have been spared from having to choose between democratic socialism and Trump-style authoritarianism. A politically dominant, centrist Democratic Party would transform our politics and America itself. Is that what the country will choose in November?
This essay first appeared in a publication by The Niskanen Center blog, and is reprinted with permission.